Basque cuisine: There's more than one way to stew a pepper

It may be 'peasant' food, says Philip Sweeney, but the Basque region's traditional cuisine is fit for a king
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The Basque country has not always had a good press. "Barbarous of language and poor in bread, wine and food of all sorts," warned a 12th-century guide to the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela, which traverses the region. The language may not have changed – it still contains an unfeasibly large, if not quite barbarous, quantity of the letters "g", "x" and "z". But the Basque catering profession clearly took the write-up to heart and has not wasted the intervening 900 years; Basque cuisine is nowadays among the best in Europe.

The Basque country has not always had a good press. "Barbarous of language and poor in bread, wine and food of all sorts," warned a 12th-century guide to the pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela, which traverses the region. The language may not have changed – it still contains an unfeasibly large, if not quite barbarous, quantity of the letters "g", "x" and "z". But the Basque catering profession clearly took the write-up to heart and has not wasted the intervening 900 years; Basque cuisine is nowadays among the best in Europe.

At a table on the riverside terrace of the Hotel Arce at St Etienne de Baigorry, things look deeply satisfactory. There's a bottle of Irouleguy rosé in the cooler from the local co-operative. Irouleguy and Navarre wines, both of ancient lineage, are at the peak of a three-decade recovery of quality. There's creamy russet piperade adorned with a sizzling slice of ham for starters, which is to be followed by Pyrenean lamb and a civet of eels and leeks before a stroll round the village to admire the big pink granite houses with their off-white plaster and oxblood painted woodwork. My Guide Bleu, unusually for a French publication, refers disparagingly to the endless variations on stewed peppers, tomatoes and garlic, typified by poulet Basquaise and piperade, the two most famous French Basque dishes, and implies authentic regional cooking is on the wane, compared with over the border in Spain. This is not how things look from the Arce terrace at St Etienne. The piperade is delicious – a mound of soft, oily peppers, tomatoes, onions and beaten egg half-way between an omelette and a dish of scrambled eggs – and its slice of ham is so local it's not even from the regional ham centre of Bayonne, but from a nearby breeder of pink and black long-eared Basque pigs up in the Aldudes valley, which Pascal Arce reckons is better than Bayonne.

St Jean Pied de Port is capital of Basse Navarre, one of the three French Basque provinces – four more lie on the Spanish side of the border. St Jean is one of the main staging posts on the Chemin de St Jacques. Modern pilgrims (you see quite a few in serious hiking gear adorned with the traditional scallop shell) still have a choice of a dozen excellent auberges, led by the Hotel des Pyrenès, where the petits poivrons farcis à la morue and local wild salmon, among other things, are responsible for the restaurant's Michelin star. Over on the Spanish side, things get even better. The restaurants of San Sebastian, led by the Michelin three-gonger of Jean-Marie Arzak, are world-renowned, while the 200 Basque male cooking confraternities spearhead a regional reputation for culinary fervour which makes the average cast of Masterchef contestants look like a bunch of Pot Noodle re-hydrators.

The Basque provinces being small, you seem to pass celebrated food-producing villages constantly. Ixtassou is 20 minutes down the valley from St Etienne, and its Hotel du Fronton does an ace cherry tart. A bit further on is Espelette, home of the spicy Appellation Controlée pepper, where strings of the things hang from houses like Christmas garlands, matching the red of the shutters. Here, we ate a delicious oxhoa, a tender ragout of veal and peppers, resembling a distant cousin of the Central European goulash, before heading on to Sare, mystical centre of Basque consciousness, stretching postcard-like up the lower foothills of the great peak of St Ignace.

We missed tasting Sare's claim to culinary fame, salmis of palombe, as the wood-pigeons trapped en masse for the pot don't make their own pilgrimage south until October. Then it was the coast, and tea-time. More gateaux Basque, and chocolate in all its forms. Jewish confectioners, expelled from Spain, established Bayonne's renown in the Middle Ages and elegant old salons de thé with panelling and bevelled mirrors, such as Cazenave in Bayonne, or Dodin in Biarritz, maintain the tradition. At the seaside, the real heart of Basque cuisine becomes apparent. There are top-notch fish restaurants from Biarritz right down to the sprawl of warehouses, trucks and tapas round the border at Hendaye.

Philip Sweeney travelled by ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao with P&O Portsmouth (0870 2424 999). A 10-day return for a car and two passengers costs from £407. Double rooms at the Hotel Arcé (00 33 5 59 37 40 14) cost from €104. For further information, contact the Spanish National Tourist Office (0207-486 8077; www.tourspain.com) or the French Information Line (09068 244123,; www. franceguide.com).

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